The Early Edition: March 27, 2020

Curated summary of up-to-the-minute national security developments at home and abroad.

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Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.  

CORONAVIRUS

The United States now has the most coronavirus cases of any country in the world, surpassing virus hotspots China and Italy. According to a tracker run by Johns Hopkins University, as of today, there were 85,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S.. Over a thousand people have died of the new virus in the U.S., far less than in Italy (8,215), Spain (4,365), China (3,291), and Iran (2,234). Nicole Chavez, Holly Yan and Madeline Holcombe report for CNN.

New York state coronavirus deaths spiked to 385 yesterday, with 100 new deaths recorded in a single day as Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) warned residents that the number will likely go up given the patients requiring long-term care. Shannon Young reports for POLITICO.

Asked about the latest figures at a White House briefing yesterday afternoon, President Trump said it was “a tribute to the amount of testing that we’re doing.” Vice-President Mike Pence said coronavirus tests were now available in all 50 states and more than 552,000 tests had been conducted nationwide. Trump also cast doubt on the figures coming out of Beijing, telling reporters: “You don’t know what the numbers are in China.” Peter Sullivan reports for the Hill.

Trump later spoke to the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, by telephone and had what he described on Twitter as a “very good conversation.” The two leaders discussed the coronavirus in “great detail,” with Trump’s social media post adding that: “China has been through much & has developed a strong understanding of the Virus … We are working closely together … Much respect!” Tom Mitchell reports for the Financial Times.

In a letter to governors yesterday, Trump said that his administration was preparing new coronavirus social distancing guidance that could potentially be more relaxed. The guidelines would depend on geographic risk factors determined by the country’s “expanded testing capabilities.” “High-risk, medium risk and low-risk” counties would receive different guidance depending on their classification so states could decide on “maintaining, increasing or relaxing social distancing and other mitigation measures they have put in place.” However, public health experts have said easing restrictions too soon could overwhelm hospitals and lead to more deaths and economic damage related to the virus. Annie Karni reports for  the New York Times. 

Members of Congress were rushing back to Washington late last night to form a quorum to pass a $2 trillion relief bill aimed at blunting the economic fallout from the pandemic amid uncertainty about whether a Republican lawmaker could delay sending the measure to Trump. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) agreed to approve the package with a voice vote today that would not require all 430 current members of the House to travel to the Capitol. However, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) has signaled to leadership that he might call for a recorded tally, which could put off a House vote until late Saturday or Sunday. Kasie Hunt and Alex Moe report for NBC News.

Leaders of the world’s major economies held a virtual G-20 summit yesterday to discuss a coordinated response to the coronavirus pandemic. The group said it was “injecting over $5 trillion into the global economy, as part of targeted fiscal policy, economic measures and guarantee schemes” to cushion the economic impact of the pandemic. Bob Davis reports for the Wall Street Journal.

The White House pulled back its expected announcement this week of a joint project between General Motors and Ventec Life Systems that would allow for the manufacturing of as many as 80,000 urgently needed ventilators to respond to an escalating pandemic. The decision to call off the announcement, government officials say, came after the Federal Emergency Management Agency said it needed more time to evaluate whether the estimated cost of more than $1 billion was excessive. David E. Sanger, Maggie Haberman and Zolan Kanno-Youngs report at the New York Times.

Almost 1.5 million N95 respirator masks were found in a U.S. government warehouse in Indiana and officials plan to offer them to the Transportation Security Administration (T.S.A.) rather than hospitals hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. There were initial worries that the masks, which are a part of the Customs and Border Protection’s emergency supplies, were expired and therefore not safe to use. However, the N95 masks were deemed still suitable for use and Department of Homeland Security officials decided in a Wednesday conference call to give them to the T.S.A. workforce, which has been asking for more protective equipment. Nick Miroff reports for the Washington Post.

The Army earlier this week ordered an end to most training, exercises and nonessential activities that cause soldiers to be in close contact, military officials said, but abruptly turned itself around days later even as the infection rate within the American military jumped up. Retracting the directive sparked confusion among the ranks and with commanders. Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt report for the New York Times.

The Trump administration has dropped its consideration of plans to put troops at the U.S.-Canada border to help with efforts to tackle the new coronavirus, a U.S. official said yesterday, disclosing that decision after Canadian officials had strongly objected to the idea. Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters in Ottawa that officials there were informed of the U.S. proposal a few days ago but would not communicate where the U.S. units might have gone or what they would do. “We are very directly and very forcefully expressing the view that this is an entirely unnecessary step which we would view as damaging to our relationship,” Freeland said. “We do not believe at all there would be a public-health justification to take this action.” Gordon Lubold and Paul Vieira report for the Wall Street Journal.

Attorney General William Barr yesterday instructed the federal Bureau of Prisons to extend the use of home confinement for certain sick and elderly inmates amid growing fears about the spread of the new coronavirus in the nation’s lockups. Barr told the agency in a memo to prioritize authorizing home confinement to inmates who “were convicted of lower level crimes, have shown good conduct behind bars and have plans for release that won’t put them and others at greater risk for contracting the virus,” explaining, “we don’t want our institutions to become petri dishes.” Sadie Gurman reports for the Wall Street Journal.

A data analysis carried out by University of Washington School of Medicine predicts that the coronavirus pandemic could result in more than 81,000 U.S. deaths in the next four months and may not ease off until June. The number of hospitalized patients is expected to top out nationally by the second week of April, though the peak may arrive later in some states. Some people could continue to die of the virus as late as July, although deaths should be less than epidemic levels of 10 per day by June at the latest, according to the analysis. Reuters reporting.

Social media giant Facebook has promised to remove from its platform coronavirus-related information that has the potential to cause physical harm part of a crack down on a surge in virus-related misinformation, including phony cures and conspiracy theories around the virus’ origin. The company on Wednesday outlined the steps it is taking to curb the spread of inaccurate content during the public health crisis. Emma Bowman reports for NPR.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has tested positive for coronavirus, the government has said. Johnson confirmed in a message sent on Twitter this morning that he is self isolating but will still lead the government’s response to the outbreak from home.  Reuters reporting.

Countries have “different reporting standards, different approaches to testing, and different approaches to tracing cases,” all of which makes data comparisons “dangerously misleading,” Ivana Kottasová cautions at CNN.

An analysis of Trump’s plan to categorize counties on coronavirus risk is provided by Philip Bump at the Washington Post.

Can Trump legally direct the country to return to work from coronavirus by Easter? Neil MacFarquhar explores the limits to the president’s powers at the New York Times, concluding that “such a declaration, in the midst of a health crisis, would have to come from local authorities — in state capitals or even from city or county governments.”

Absent strong leadership and a clear American policy, the virus “will probably do more damage to the U.S.,” Edward Luce argues for the Financial Times, noting, “It is China, not the U.S., which is shipping ventilators to Europe, Africa and central Asia,” and though “China’s ‘face mask’ diplomacy is breathtakingly opportunistic … it meets a need.”

“Congress, the press, and the public must be vigilant that the administration does not try to use the epidemic as a stalking horse for authoritarian power grabs or attacks on our rights,” Andrew Boyle warns in a piece for Just Security.

The virus is overburdening even the capacities of western nations’ advanced medical infrastructure, Peter Maurer writes for The Guardian, explaining why Covid-19’s intrusion into conflict zones is so alarming. 

“President Trump has called the coronavirus ‘the invisible enemy’ … But when it comes to sanctions on North Korea, the pathogen may turn out to be his administration’s most effective ally,” Christoph Koettl writes for the Washington Post, noting the North’s fear of coronavirus infection “appears to have achieved what Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korean nuclear and missile work has not: choking the North’s economy.”

The transcript of an interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and member of the White House coronavirus task force, who warned that other states need to prepare to tackle outbreaks of the scale of New York’s, is provided by Elena Renken at NPR.

A map and analysis of all confirmed cases of the virus in the U.S. is available at the New York Times.

U.S. and worldwide maps tracking the spread of the pandemic are available at the Washington Post.

Latest updates on the pandemic at The Guardian and NBC News.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

The Trump administration charged Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and 14 members of his inner circle with drug trafficking, “narco-terrorism”, corruption and money laundering, and offered a $15m reward for information leading to his capture, a dramatic escalation in the U.S. campaign to force the authoritarian socialist from power. Al Jazeera reporting.

The U.S. imposed new sanctions against 20 individuals and entities connected to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.) and its branch for elite operations abroad, the Quds Force, over the group’s support for the militia in Iraq. The State Department announced yesterday that the sanctions are intended to punish efforts to “violate Iraqi sovereignty and exploit Iraq’s economy to funnel money to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force,” and said some of the individuals help provide support for Tehran’s transfer of “lethal aid to Iranian-backed terrorist groups in Iraq such as Kata’ib Hizballah (KH) and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH).” The Hill reporting.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s main rival, Benny Gantz was elected yesterday as speaker of parliament in what appears to be an important step toward creating an emergency government and ending the country’s year-long political deadlock. The coronavirus pandemic, including more than 2,600 confirmed Israeli cases, has added urgency to efforts to break a stalemate between the two leaders. The BBC reporting.

Trump administration officials are seriously considering whether to expel employees of Chinese media outlets who they say primarily act as spies, in retaliation for China’s decision last week to evict nearly all American journalists from three major American newspapers. The New York Times reporting.

Washington should avoid the temptation to make further cutbacks in Afghanistan, Barnett R. Rubin argues at Foreign Policy, explaining how slashing aid and ditching the peace process will harm U.S. interests.

A suspect in a months-long  domestic terrorism investigation is dead after he was shot by F.B.I. agents during an operation to arrest him. The suspect, Timothy Wilson, had plotted a bomb attack on a medical facility in the Kansas City area. AP reporting.

Any potential reforms to presidential emergency powers must include strong procedural checks and balances to improve oversight and limit the scope for abuse, Peter Harrel writes for Just Security, as Congress considers a review of the government’s broad legal authorities. 

About the Author(s)

Nat O'Connell

Associate News Editor at Just Security and Legal Fellow at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK - Follow her on Twitter (@oconnellnat).